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In the word often, the labiodental non-sibilant fricative f precedes the alveolar stop t, which is then followed by the vowel e. The Oxford Dictionaries Online offers two accepted pronunciations:

/ˈɒf(ə)n/ /ˈɒft(ə)n/

I would like to describe the phonetic interaction between the f and the t in the pronunciation
/ˈɒf(ə)n/. The sole pronunciation of the archaic oft, leads me to consider that the vowel plays a significant role in silencing the t. Though I doubt it is the standard terminology, I would tend to describe it in laymen's terms with the word picture underlying fricative:

the fricative rubs out the stop in concert with the vowel

If that seems like an acceptable description, I would be content with it, but I would like to know if there is a more precise professional description of that phonetic effect.

  • 1
    An interesting piece on Why is “t” often silent? As Bright explains, the “t” in these words is an acoustically “explosive” one, and to sound it after an “s” or an “f”—both of which expend “considerable breath”—is “especially difficult and obscure.” *Consequently the “t” sound is assimilated into its surroundings and becomes silent* . grammarphobia.com/blog/2012/01/silent-t.html – user66974 May 6 '15 at 19:40
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    I believe that this is called assimilation or coalescence. Other examples include soft, whose t is pronounced, and soften, whose t may be pronounced; and moist and moisten. Similarly, the t of any word ending in -ion will be changed: compare direct with direction, constitute with constitution, and inject with injection. We English speakers evidently dislike the combination dental stop + nasal, and so we change it to sibilant + nasal. – Anonym May 6 '15 at 19:41
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    @Anonym: I agree with you that it's about the syllabic consonant. It doesn't directly relate to it being a nasal, though: we see the same effect in words like wrestle, thistle, whistle. I also think it is only a historical change, not a synchronic one: there is no elision of the t in words like crystal or the name Tristan, although they may be realized with syllabic consonants. – herisson May 6 '15 at 19:57
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    Good question. This is all new stuff to me, but I must say, I love just pronouncing that opening doozy. If you don't mind, I think I'd like to try to fit it into a piece of poetry? – user98990 May 6 '15 at 20:40
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    @ScotM: "In the word often, the labiodental non-sibilant fricative f precedes the alveolar stop t" should be "sometimes precedes". It's considered a spelling pronunciation in the US, for instance, and there simply is no /t/ for anything to precede. – John Lawler Jun 11 '15 at 17:41
5

I think the term you are looking for is assimilation:

  • Assimilation has a very precise meaning when it’s related to studies of languages. Is a common phonological process bye which the phonetics of a speech segment becomes more like another segment in a word. In other words it’s when a letter (sound) is influenced by the letter (sound) before or after it so that it changes its sound and/or spelling. The word assimilation it self it’s said to be assimilated; it is derived from the latin prefix ad- meaning to and simil- meaning like but, instead of being adsimilated, it has the easier pronunciation of assimilated.

(phonetics-and-phonology)

Often: as explained in the following extract by James W. Bright:

  • “often,” the word can be properly pronounced either with or without a “t” sound. The “t” had long been silent but it came back to life in the 19th century with the rise of literacy, when people seemed to feel that each letter in a word should be sounded.

  • The article, “On ‘Silent T’ in English,” by James W. Bright, appeared in the journal Modern Language Notes in January 1886.

  • As Bright explains, the “t” in these words is an acoustically “explosive” one, and to sound it after an “s” or an “f”—both of which expend “considerable breath”—is “especially difficult and obscure.” Consequently the “t” sound is assimilated into its surroundings and becomes silent.

  • However, the “t” sound persists in some other words spelled with “-stl” and “-ftl,” like “lastly,” “justly,” “mostly,” “shiftless,” “boastless,” and others.

  • Bright explains that such words “are, with most persons familiar with their use, conscious compounds; as they become popular words, and therefore subject to unstudied pronunciation, they conform to the regular rule. It is only after administered caution that we learn to make t audible in wristband.”

(grammarphobia.com)

5

The usual linguistic term for the complete loss of a sound is elision; in this case, the sound /t/ was elided when it came after a fricative and before a homorganic syllabic consonant [n̩] or [l̩] (which are usually analyzed phonemically as /ən/ and /əl/, and pronounced that way for some speakers).

The Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language describes the situation as follows (it's mostly concerned with the orthography, however, not the phonology):

[T is] elided after s following a stressed vowel: before /l/, especially in the terminal syllable -le, as in castle, nestle, pestle, trestle, wrestle, [...], rustle; before n, especially the terminal element -en, in chasten, hasten, fasten, christen, glisten, listen, moisten; and in isolated words such as Christmas, postman, waistcoat. (3) Elided after f in soften and often in often.

It may be worth noting that some of these words, for example "glisten", did not in fact originally have a /t/ sound in Old English; the fact that it is spelled with a "t" might be due to the sound change that occurred and the subsequent reanalysis of the spelling -sten as a representation of word-final /sn̩/, and -stle as a representation of word-final /sl̩/.

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